Right to Property in the State of Nature essay

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The issues of property, which had formed in ancient times and evolved in the political and legal thought of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, went through its greatest theoretical development in the context of liberal political and legal concepts of the early modern period. It should be noted that, having emerged long before their conceptual formalization, these principles were expressed in the writings of the father of the class compromise – John Locke. In his philosophy, the idea of property is the matter of central importance. In the 17th-19th centuries, the concept of property took on a new meaning, to a considerable extent thanks to Locke. The need for full independence and protection of private property from the encroachments of the government was put forward by the Third Estate in the fight against absolutism. Locke’s doctrine of the natural character of the right to property was created for theoretical justification of the claims (not only economical, but also political ones) of the young Third Estate, which was seeking independence from the crown. Locke saw the guarantee of such independence in property.

Property in the State of Nature

Locke substantiated his political views and attitudes by means of the philosophy, the core of which was the theory of natural law and social contract. For Locke, initially, people lived in a natural state. Locke’s idea of a natural state differed from the one developed by Thomas Hobbes. It was not a state of mutual war but goodwill, for there were enough fruit of soil and water for everyone and each individual could earn enough:

All the fruits it naturally produces and animals that it feeds, as produced by the spontaneous hand of nature, belong to mankind in common; nobody has a basic right—a private right that excludes the rest of mankind—over any of them as they are in their natural state. But they were given for the use of men; and before they can be useful or beneficial to any particular man there must be some way for a particular man to appropriate them (Locke, Section 26).

In other words, private property emerged long before the social authority and existed independently. In his works, Locke developed ideas made by earlier British thinkers of the revolutionary period in the mid-17th century.     Locke’s natural law construction is not just a system of theoretical postulates, which had to explain certain ideas. It is a declaration of inalienable rights, the aggregate of which is the fundamental law of the newly created reasonable social order.

For Locke, property has narrow and broad senses. In a narrow sense, property is determined by material things (possessions) owned by people. Locke insists that the legal form of ownership (in the narrow sense) exists when only it is the product of various degrees of diligence. This property is inviolable and must be protected by the state. In this connection, he referred to the custom prevailing in Cromwell’s army when a sergeant could have sentenced a soldier to death for leaving the post or for disobeying the most reckless orders. On the other hand, he could not, with all his absolute power, “command that same soldier to give him one penny of his money” (Locke, Section 139). In a broad sense, property means all that relates to the internal structure of the individual. It includes intellectual and physical energy, representations about life, and value of life. It is something that belongs to a man: not only material wealth, but also intangible values, such as life, liberty, and position in the society. This concept of property allows Locke to consider it as life and use this concept as a synonym for life. In all Locke’s works, the terms “life” and “property” are used together as the concepts inseparable from each other. The rights to life and to property are almost the same. He believed that property is not a subject to a social contract and the state has no right to make an unauthorized seizure of property of citizens. In such a way, he contrasted, for example, Hobbes who believed that property is a product of the state.

It is no accident that the chapter “Of Property” in the Second Treatise was placed before the chapter “Of Political or Civil Society.” In other words, even in a pre-political society, man was the owner – the owner of his intangible things. In this chapter, Locke writes:

Though men as a whole own the earth and all inferior creatures, every individual man has a property in his own person; this is something that nobody else has any right to. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. (Locke, Section 27).

Property thus is considered as the natural state. Any pre-political individual owns property in its broadest sense and acquires it in the process of labor. By materializing his physical and intellectual efforts into the products of labor, he owns them as a property.

It is possible to single out three important moments of Locke’s theory of a natural state.

1) Initially, individuals own everything together, but the duty of the individual is to take care of himself; therefore, he should work. To continue the above mentioned quote:

…when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own; and in that way he makes it his property (ibid).

Individual labor gives the individual the right to own the product that he had made. This means that, eventually, any property will become a private property. On the other hand, it also means that the biological relationship does not provide the right to own property. The above applies to the natural state. The transition to a politically ordered society establishes the right of ownership as the private property right recognizing the principle of inheritance of property. This principle does not correspond to the thesis that private property is the result of the personal labor of an individual.

2) The individual has the right to own as much property as he can use. Nevertheless, the individual has no right to squander the property, which he owns as a result of his own labor. Since Locke judges from the idea of natural economy, he believes that the right of ownership for the individual has natural limitations. The harvest grown by the individual for the personal consumption is his private property. However, the individual has no right to leave this harvest to rot: if [fruits] perished in his possession without having been properly used—if the fruits rotted or the venison putrified before he could use it—he offended against the common law of nature, and was liable to be punished (Locke, Section 37).

The same rule concerns possession of land:

…he had his own particular right to whatever grass etc. that he sowed, reaped, stored, and made use of before it spoiled; and to whatever animals he enclosed, fed, and made use of (Locke, Section 38).

3) Finally, Locke assumes that there are enough resources to meet the basic needs of all people on Earth. He justifies this assumption by asserting that there is enough land for everyone. Moreover, the cultivation of land and things significantly increases the cost of the things that people use. Referring to the situation with the resources, among other things, he says, “There is land enough in the world to suffice twice as many people as there are” (Locke, Section 36). In his time, the world population was about half a billion people. Almost two hundred years later, it has doubled, and today it continues to grow.


According to Locke, if the individual lives by his own labor, without squander, and there are enough resources for all people, then there is a certain harmonic equality of individuals. Such a stage of a natural state is characterized by natural economy, private property, generated by individual labor contribution and limited private consumption. However, the invention of money and the tacit agreement of people to give them value lead to the formation of large possessions and the emergence of rights to them. In other words, even before the political social contract, people at some point make a tacit and voluntary agreement on the introduction of money. Emergence of money is accompanied by inequitable distribution of land (“a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth”). For with money, silver and gold, everyone

…may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus gold and silver, which may be hoarded up without injury to any one; these metals not spoiling or decaying in the hands of the possessor (Locke, Section 50).

Unlike the harvest, which eventually spoils, money can be accumulated. The individual will not “spoil” the money, even if he earns an enormous amount of it:

That is how money came into use—as a durable thing that men could keep without its spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful but perishable supports of life (Locke, Section 47).

Hence, there are no natural limits on what an individual can legally own anymore. This assumes that there are enough resources available to all, and that private property is the result of personal labor.

The advent of money is followed by material inequality. Some people owe a lot and some owe a little. According to Locke, this inequality is caused by the introduction of money based on a voluntary agreement between individuals. Thus, large possessions occur legally. Therefore, the poor do not have any grounds for complaint, because, according to Locke, everyone is a party to the agreement on the introduction of money. At this phase, the society has not emerged yet, in the political sense. People still have remained in a natural state; therefore, there is no reason to blame the society (in the political sense) in wealth inequality arising from the introduction of money.

Social Contract

According to Locke, a political society emerges as the result of the conclusion of a new, truly social contract. The question is why such a contract is required; as a matter of fact, everything happened as it should happen in the phase of the natural state, in which money had already existed. Two reasons force this phase to end. There is the need in a political organization that can protect life and property. Everyone is interested in protection of his life; in addition, those who have property are interested in its protection. Therefore, everyone is interested in such social contract, although on different grounds. This concerns a political society, which corresponds to the basic features of the English society contemporary to Locke that existed in the late 17th century after the English Revolution. It was a class state with the political power of the propertied class and some legal rights. Thus, Locke began his theory with the assumption about the equality of everyone and ended it with a legitimized society of wealth and political inequality. The question is how a political theory can speak of the inviolable right of every individual and, at the same time, legitimize economic inequality and the right to vote only for the property owners.

As it was stated above, Locke justified economic inequality as a part of voluntary agreement. It follows that only free individuals, but not the society, are responsible for the inequality. Next, Locke believes that those who have property embody the human reason in the society. Since those who can vote and have the political power must be rational; it means that the right to vote and other political rights should be reserved for the propertied class. This implies that, in terms of property, income inequality goes hand in hand with the inequality in reason and inequality in political power.

A voluntary agreement on the introduction of money has led to many consequences. Those who were denied privileges cannot blame the society or the privileged ones in the creation of any of these inequalities. After all, all people used to be the parties of the same voluntary agreement. On the other hand, even those who do not own anything are potentially rational. Even they can develop themselves and realize their inherent human rationality. This argument contains the seeds of belief in human progress, the fruit of which can be found in the Enlightenment. Basically, at some future time, all people can become rational citizens by means of the material and cultural progress. The belief in progress makes it easier to perceive the existing inequality – the future will be better for everyone.

Thus, Locke’s concept of property is characterized by the following key factors. Private property, according to Locke, is the origin of labor. Therefore, its validity is unquestionable; without recognition of private property, the progressive development of society is not possible. The individual transforming the land or its products into private property does not affect the interests and the abilities of other individuals since the land was boundless and everyone could get benefits by applying labor to land, relying on his talent and hard work. By means of labor, the individual changes the natural thing into something special. After this process, the right of others to this thing cannot be tolerated. Since labor was the property of the laborer, no one could require the individual to give up the thing, with which his labor was connected. In an effort to prove the independence of ownership from the power of the state, Locke has put forward the hypothesis that property (as the natural right to property) emerged in pre-state societies. Moreover, he asserted that individual appropriation does not require any consent of the people, who have a common right to the objects of nature. The only reason for individual appropriation is labor. Personal labor of the individual is in the basis of everything. The state must provide individuals with a certain legal, but not social or economic equality. Locke, apparently, believed that there was a natural harmony between the selfish desires of an individual and the common good.


John Locke was, perhaps, the first to declare the primacy of the society over the state. This idea is based on the recognition that property (in the broad sense) is at the basis of society. Property delineates the boundaries of the sphere, in which man is an independent and sovereign individual and is the limit of individual freedom, at the same time. For Locke, such categories as order, power, and property are not valuable in themselves, but are an instrument for the protection of life and safety of the human person.

From this, it can be concluded that the majority, possessing the power to establish the state and “decide for all,” is composed of independent individuals-laborers-owners. This implies an undistorted representation of the individual in the majority. This triune formula determines the legal status of a citizen, turns the crowd into citizens, exercising their right to life and property, in a narrow and broad senses. For Locke, the public in its structure is the owner, who has a real interest in the exercise of power. Therefore, citizen-owner is concerned, in terms of Locke, that the state is not oppressive, but lawful, that is, observing the conditions of the social contract. Such citizens are the active subjects of the political and legal circulation; they protect it with their lives, their requirements, and expectations.

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